An international project called PADS promoted participatory learning and action research with inland valley rainfed rice farmers in West Africa. All countries received the same training, similar funding, and the same leadership. Although the staff in Ghana were conscientious and gave much training to the farmer-beneficiaries, the Mali staff explicitly encouraged farmers to experiment. Farmers in Mali responded to this favourable attitude by experimenting more than those in Ghana, and in qualitatively more interesting ways. Long-term engagement with grassroots organisations may be as conducive to changing public servants’ attitudes as the actual participatory approach promoted on the ground.